Coping with the loss of a pet

Many people with children recognize the value of including pets in the family constellation. Pets provide remarkable lessons in friendship and love, responsibility, and the circle of life. They are unabashedly thrilled to see us at the end of a tough day, a comfort to us when we are sad, and love us when we feel unlovable. Before long, they have become an integral part of the family.
It is not unusual then, for children to be faced with saying goodbye when a pet dies. How parents respond to such a significant event as the death of a loved one determines how a child is able to understand and to cope with the loss.
We must always remember that young children tend to take the things we say literally:
I have known parents to explain Grandfather’s death in such a way that during the next encounter with an elderly woman in her church, one little girl blurts out, “I hope you die.” She is completely baffled by the reaction her innocent remark elicits from her elders, and has no idea what she has done to upset everyone.
A cherished pet bunny dies while a little boy is out playing. The corpse is whisked into the backyard for burial by well-meaning parents trying to spare the child “unnecessary” pain. Without having had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye, this boy carries the unresolved anger and grief for years.
What happens in a child’s imagination when they are “protected” from the experience of death can be more traumatic than the occurrence of the emotional pain necessary to lead to acceptance. Telling him or her that Grandma has gone to sleep forever is a terrifying analogy: we all go to sleep. “Does that mean that each time someone I love goes to sleep they may really be dead? If I go to sleep, will I be dead too?”
When children are allowed to experience death as a part of life, to see and touch and talk about the body of a pet who has been found dead in it’s cage, to bury a goldfish rather than flushing it down the toilet, is far less traumatizing than what they are capable of conjuring in their imaginations. They are able to see that the the only difference is that the spirit which has made their friend who they were, has left the body.
It is okay for children to observe your grief in the face of death, as long as it is not an overly dramatic display.
It is a mistake to run out and get an immediate replacement for the absent pet, for there can be no replacement. Time is necessary to work through our loss.
This is a good time of year to talk about the circle of life. Children are able to begin to understand that death leads to rebirth when as a flower dies, it creates seeds for new flowers; the leaves on the trees die to make room for new growth. Taking advantage of the teachable moments we encounter in our days becomes invaluable as we point out that a bird lying on the ground no longer contains the life which allowed it to build a nest and lay eggs and sing and fly. 
Children are able accept that death is a part of life, to learn that it needs to occur to create room for new life. Talking about death openly allows children to feel sad, while coming to a certain understanding which replaces fear of the unknown.
Leaving for college August 2008

Throughout the years my children have wrapped their mice, rats, birds and hedgehog in soft bedding, dug holes and created monuments to their beloved little friends. But following is a blueprint of a blessed farewell experience that I would wish for any family suffering the loss of a furry, scaly, spiked or feathered companion.


Our cat Acorn had been with us for 14 years and watching her rapid decline was devastating. She disappeared and was found in her severely weakened state in the creek after she had presumably gone off to die. 

Not knowing whose kitty it was, this kind neighbor made the decision to have her cared for, not realizing that the situation was hopeless. Animal Rescue came, the woman agreed to pay all bills incurred. She also made a donation to the rescue facility for coming to retrieve the cat. Then she started calling neighbors in attempt to locate its owner. Another neighbor told me our beloved pet had been found. She had been taken to emergency at an animal care facility.

When I was apprised of the situation I had to make the decision to euthanize her. Another friend arranged her following day to allow for me to be with our kitty while she was being euthanized, I held her in my arms, looking into her eyes while the vet administered the injection. 
I was given some time alone with her to say goodbye. As I stepped out of the procedure room with her tucked away in a little coffin-like box, a song played on the radio that was a perfect tribute to her and the connection we shared, especially at the end of her life. 
For weeks after she died we still expected her to come running between the bushes at the end of the driveway when we got home, or to scold us for not being around when we open the door to come in.


R.I.P. Acorn (May 1994-Sept 2008)

Our sons came home for her burial on a cold and rainy weekend. We stood in the rain for a good half hour, sharing our memories of her, laughing about our lives together, quiet with our thoughts as we listened to the rain falling through the leaves in the trees while twittering birds flocked in apparent celebration of her dear soul. It was a wonderful, magical sending off which was deeply comforting, and it was with reluctance that we pulled ourselves away from her graveside to enter our warm dry home. -RDW (10-23-09)

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